BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — The president of the local Volunteer Rescue Squad has asked the Township Council to support a program that would provide its members with tax-deferred income benefits in an effort to retain and reward volunteers for their service to the community.
Joe Savino addressed the council at its June 25 regular meeting about the Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, which would set up a “pension-like fund” for volunteers. He stated that the squad is having trouble attracting new members and that the “membership problem is not going away, it is only expected to increase.”
Of the county’s 21 municipalities, Berkeley Heights is the only one utilizing all-volunteer EMS and fire services without providing benefits, according to Savino, who said a change is “long overdue.”
Currently the Berkeley Heights squad has 18 regular members, although there should be 26 regular members for the township’s size.
The award program may serve as an incentive for people to join, Savino said.
“The more that we can offer a prospective volunteer, the more attractive it is to join us. Let’s face it, people are busy and for EMS members to meet the certification and training, it’s a very long, involved process. And, you have to get recertified every two years,” Savino said.
The average cost for the program would be about $5 per household, Savino said, adding that squad members must meet a series of strict requirements to be eligible for the benefit.
The criteria include: serving a minimum of 720 hours per year on squad duty; attending meetings and training sessions; working extra shifts; being on standby during emergencies; performing community service or taking part in drills; teaching EMS courses and responding to a call for extra members.
The cost is approximately $1,150 per year for each member who meets the criteria. Ten volunteers would be eligible for the benefits in 2019.
In order to be funded, the program would have to be put to a vote in the form of a referendum in the next general election, Savino said.
“Members need to earn this benefit,” he added, stating that if volunteers miss even one shift without making it up, they will not qualify.
Currently, there are slightly more than 14,000 township residents and Savino said that number is increasing with new developments, such as Woodcrest at Berkeley Heights, a 196-unit age-restricted development that will be located at 100 Locust Ave.
“You’re turning us into professionals with the number of hours that we’re putting in, and that’s the reality of it,” he told the council.
He added that the township has several “skilled nursing and ambulatory care centers” that he feels are “abusing the free rescue squad services” since they are for-profit businesses.
At the meeting, Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley asked if the program has solved the retention issue in other towns. When Savino replied that he had only spoken with New Providence officials about the program, Kingsley suggested that he provide this information to the council.
While the LOSAP program differs from the stipend program proposed by the local Fire Department earlier this year, Fire Department officials have proposed that the council approve both a LOSAP and the stipend program.
“We put LOSAP in our plan as a sort of another package benefit,” Adam Uanis, president of the local volunteer fire department said at the meeting, adding that the stipend plan “in any form” would be more effective for the department than LOSAP.